Analog War

How to rid Somalia of al-Shabab once and for all -- in six (not-so) easy steps.


Al-Shabab is back. After suffering a series of crippling defeats at the hands of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the Somali National Army, the militant Islamist organization had all but disappeared from Somalia’s major urban areas — and from the list of concerns of many in the international community. But the recent attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, and the dramatic raid this weekend by U.S. Navy SEALs on the coastal Somali town of Barawe have served to highlight the resurgence of the terrorist group.

While it was battling international forces for control of Somalia, al-Shabab was also in the midst of an internal struggle — one that pitted the group’s hardliners against its more moderate elements. In that battle, the hardliners were the decisive victors. And now, after marginalizing or killing off his more moderate competition, al-Shabab leader Sheikh Moktar Ali Zubeyr Godane is showing his enemies and detractors that he and his more extremist followers are still very much in the game.

Following the recent attack in Nairobi, there have been immediate and predictable calls for increased Western and African Union support to the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS), the fledgling national government that is projecting a semblance of authority over much of the war-torn country for the first time in more than 20 years. As recently as Monday, the president of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, and his defense minister, Haji Faqi, lobbied the international community for more funding to enable the expansion of the 12,000-man Somali National Army (SNA).

Against this backdrop, assistance should be rendered — but it need not be costly and nor should it consist of adding more AMISOM troops. Success can be achieved at low cost by modifying and tweaking the efforts currently underway. To that end, here are a few low-cost pointers that may help put al-Shabab back where it belongs: marginalized, without popular support, and on the road to extinction.

Get acronyms talking to one another.

Recent attacks notwithstanding, Somalia is trending in the right direction. For the first time in over 20 years, the country has a new government, a draft constitution, and a measure of stability in most major population centers. AMISOM and the United Nations have been instrumental in getting Somalia back on its feet, but in order for recent security-related gains to be consolidated, all stakeholders will need a shared vision of the way forward. Currently, all of the major players — the FGS and the Somali National Army (SNA), the United Nations, and the countries that contribute troops to AMISOM — are making individual progress, but without much synchronization.

As a result, AMISOM and the SNA have struggled to protect supply routes from Mogadishu to major population centers such as Baidoa and Merka, and failed to expand their areas of operations to include the strategic towns of Barawe and Xuddur.

A political-military campaign plan, developed and agreed upon by all participants, would increase coalition effectiveness and decrease resource requirements, while providing a road map for measurable success. Al Shabab safe havens and IED cells, for example, could be attacked and degraded by relocating troops and equipment from relatively stable Ugandan-controlled areas of the country to less secure Burundian-controlled areas.

A planning group — assembled in Mogadishu and made up of representatives from AMISOM contributing nations, the United Nations, and the Somali National Army, should hammer out an operational approach to defeating al-Shabab and establishing stability. At a minimum, that plan should determine essential tasks and then array available resources and forces to achieve them. Essential tasks for the first iteration of planning should include: Retaining Mogadishu and its environs; denying al-Shabab safe haven; interdicting the group’s movements and supplies, especially those emanating from Yemen; degrading al-Shabab so that it can be effectively countered by the FGS alone; developing an SNA that can assume lead security responsibility; supporting the development of FGS institutions; protecting the routes in between key cities; integrating all armed militias into an approved security framework; and providing a detailed roadmap for developing and synchronizing the efforts of the SNA, the police, intelligence, and the justice system.

Lastly, the plan should lay out a campaign sequence that phases participants’ efforts and benchmarks progress, allowing senior leaders to surge resources based on the urgency of the task at hand.

Remember: This is an analog war… and never start a sentence with “when I was in Afghanistan.”

AMISOM soldiers are unfailingly polite. But if pushed, they will be quick to point out that, in their opinion, America has lost its last two wars (Iraq and Afghanistan) while they have won theirs (Uganda’s current government, for example, prevailed in a rather long insurgency). As a result, AMISOM officers have little patience for being lectured on the virtues of establishing joint operations center with multiple plasma screens and tiered seating. This is war Africa-style — and the participants are all about keeping it personal, spiritual, and above all, analog.

Expect cell phones instead of secure satellite communications, Toyota Land Cruisers as opposed to “up-armored” Humvees, and maps instead of GPS. And you can forget about the so-called “golden hour” — a term that applies to being medically evacuated to a primary care facility within an hour of being wounded. If you get winged in Somalia, you are being evacuated in a Toyota or Casspir armored vehicle over a dirt road on a trip that may take 12 or more hours. And yes, you may die. Get happy.

In short, anyone who wants to advise in Africa had better put in some time on the continent — and even then couch any comments with respect and humility, recognizing that the mentees might have a few things to teach the mentor.

Afghanistan and Somalia are different in many ways — from the nature of the insurgency to the lack of a Pakistan-like safe haven for the enemy — but there are enough similarities to make comparative analysis worthwhile. In particular, the United States could learn from some of the things AMISOM has done in Somalia, and AMISOM could learn from some of the American experience in Afghanistan. The key is knowing which ideas, tactics, techniques, and procedures are of value — and being able to communicate in a way that shows respect and situational awareness.

Help when AMISOM needs it. Get out of the way when it doesn’t.

AMISOM has proven it can fight. Its infantry units have carried the day, generally, against al-Shabab and its associated foreign fighters. The Ugandan and Burundian AMISOM contingents, for example, pushed al-Shabab out of Mogadishu in 2011 in fighting that looked more like the battle of Stalingrad than a counterinsurgency. The Kenyans seized Kismayo; the Djiboutians took Belet Weyne. Meanwhile, the Somali National Army pushed from Mogadishu 50 miles north to Jowhar in a rather impressive display of battalion-level operations.

So where can AMISOM and the SNA use assistance? By enabling support.

Fighting is only part of what an army does. It must also be able to move, gather and process intelligence, fix main supply routes, and sustain itself in terms of food, water, supplies, and repair parts. If Western nations are willing to step up their support, here is a laundry list of enablers that will dramatically increase AMISOM and the SNA’s combat effectiveness: logistical support, maintenance, air mobility (AMISOM and the SNA are in desperate need of helicopters and planes for transport, medical evacuation, intelligence, and fire support), ground mobility (particularly armored vehicles like Casspirs, Rinkhals, Mambas, and Revas), secure UHF and VHS communications, combat engineering, heavy transport, casualty evacuation, biometrics, unmanned aerial systems (for surveillance and intelligence), intelligence and operations fusion, civil affairs, route clearance, tactical cyber support, database management, information operations, indirect fire support, medical and veterinary support, water support (well-digging and transportation) and precision strike capabilities.

And here is an unpalatable truth: A lot of the above can be contracted out. So instead of sending U.S. soldiers to provide vehicle maintenance, contract a non-U.S. firm to do it. This will save money and lives, since U.S. soldiers and civilians often become the targets simply because they hold American passports.

Support the development of the SNA, but don’t build an unsustainable force.

The Somali National Army currently sits at about 12,000 troops divided among six divisions. The soldiers are generally great fighters — and for the most part, they are led by good officers who are eager to improve and professionalize. Currently, the European Union provides most of the training to SNA troops at the Jazeera training facility just a few kilometers from the Mogadishu International Airport. The EU training is high quality — and members of AMISOM meet regularly with the SNA to discuss training needs and resourcing.

But developing an army requires more than just good training. In executing an SNA development plan, the following considerations should be taken into account:

Build the right army. Somalia is a distributed battlefield (big country, few troops) so military units cannot be everywhere at once. The fight resembles a counterinsurgency with a counterterrorism component — where initiative and agility enable units to exploit opportunities as they arise. Success, therefore, will be garnered by small unit tactics, mobile strike teams, civil affairs, and simplified logistics. Instead of building an army based on the American model (which we did in Afghanistan) trainers should look to Kenya and Uganda as examples of what army to build and sustain. Simply put, 600-troop battalions should be the focal point of the army, not the bigger brigades of 3,000 troops or corps of 10,000 troops.

Simplify the logistics. Western armies resupply themselves with a “pull” system wherein supplies are requested and then filled. The SNA will require more of a “push” system, where supplies are sent down to units based on historical needs or cell phone requests. In Somalia, emails, fax machines, and computers are few and far between — and most soldiers cannot read or write. So make it easy on everyone and do what the Soviets did: Push the supplies.

Build more and better training facilities. The Jazeera training facility in Mogadishu lacks adequate troop billeting, sanitation, and maneuver space for troops to shoot, move, and communicate. We can do better. The European Union should build a facility — or two — that allows troops to train while taking care of their basic needs. The Jazeera facility is not that. ‘Nuff said.

Build an army that you can sustain. Afghanistan is building a 352,000-strong security force (including army and policing elements) at a cost of $6 billion per year. Guess who pays for that? Not Afghanistan, I can assure you. Allow me to speak heresy: a 12,000-strong army is enough to cover a big country like Somalia. If the army is organized, trained, and equipped properly, one could even do it with less. Put me in charge and I will prove it.

Build a transition plan that transfers lead security responsibility to the SNA by an agreed-upon date, allowing AMISOM to eventually leave. Currently, no plan exists to phase out dependence on foreign troops. Somalis are a proud people and they will not suffer AMISOM forever. Nor will AMISOM want to be there forever. Budgets, political will, and casualties will eventually erode the commitment of troop-contributing nations. So let’s build a plan that gives the Somalis responsibility for their own security.

Don’t spend too much. Money causes corruption, which causes a lack of legitimacy, which causes the bad guys to win. Reduce the amount of resources and everyone wins — except corrupt officials and al-Shabab.

Integrate local militias and develop village-based paramilitary organizations.

In Somalia, practically every village has a militia. On one overnight trip between Bossaso and Hafuun in 2012 year with the Puntland Maritime Police Force, we approached a different village roughly every 50 kilometers — only to be shot at, stopped, and interrogated as to what we doing, where we were going, and why. There are also some bigger, regional militias (ASWJ and Ras Kamboni come to mind) that play important roles in Somali’s political landscape.

At the same time that militias control huge swaths of territory, AMISOM and the SNA are struggling to secure the roads between major populations centers. So here’s a brilliant idea: Integrate these militias into government service.

This idea is controversial, since some militias are controlled by corrupt and abusive warlords. Somalia, after all, was torn apart by warlords and militias over the last 23 years — so why should this be different?

Here is an ugly truth that I have learned over 30 years of being in this business: Pretty much everything can be reduced to power relations. Not human rights, not gender equality, not a whole slew of things the United States rightly tries to promote. Weaker elements will humble themselves before stronger elements in any culture. So if the FGS and its army attain both legitimacy and power, militias will be more willing to submit to their authority. Offer this deal to militias and their leaders: safeguard your own village, keep the roads clear of IEDs and work with the government where needed. Double cross us, treat your people poorly, or allow al-Shabab to gain traction and we will crush you. Think of it as “Responsibility to Protect” on a smaller scale — and with more violence.

And to hedge your bets: train the militias, garner biometric data, and put them on the FGS payroll as an integrated part of the national security team.

Secure steady funding.

The European Union deserves credit for the solid work that it has done in Somalia, but it has been more than flaky when it comes to funding. Like any government, the Somalis need to know what its budget is as it strives for stability. Knowing that the Somali government will not need the same level of support forever, the European Union should ensure that the Somalis know how much they can expect in Western funding for the next 3 years.

* * *

Somalia is at a critical point. Having secured Mogadishu and Somalia’s major population centers, AMISOM, the United Nations, and the FSG have a window of opportunity to solidify their hard earned gains. But the enemy is not going to just hand it to them. Al-Shabab, no longer able to stand toe-to-toe with conventional AMISOM and SNA forces, can be expected to continue carrying out asymmetric attacks. But the Somalis are a resilient people who are practical, entrepreneurial, and worthy of the international community’s best efforts. Let’s put our best foot forward and give them the chance that they deserve.

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